I once read that the children of alcoholics often grow up to be very sensitive because part of surviving the dysfunctional environment of their homes involves anticipating moods and reacting to them in a manner which diminishes their suffering. If this is so, it would also explain why so many children of alcoholics are also prone to addiction themselves. Increased sensitivity means increased emotional pain and addiction often is a means of emotionally anesthetizing yourself.
My father is an alcoholic and my mother probably has had some sort of undiagnosed depressive disorder for most of her life. Growing up with both of them, I recall moments of difficulty and tension and trying not to get on the wrong side of either of them for fear of bringing on more misery. I'm guessing that part of the reason I worked so hard at school was to keep them happy with me and show that I was "good" and therefore not deserving of the verbal wrath that sometimes came my way.
I've forgiven both of my parents for the damage they did to me as a result of how damaged they are. Neither of them has changed much, though my father has gotten a bit better and my mother worse as the years have gone by. I realize that they are in pain, too, and that they never meant to mess up their kids by their actions. They were just doing what they could to cope, and sometimes that involved random spreading of their misery to available targets without even knowing what or why they were doing it.
Unfortunately, growing up in the way I did coupled with perhaps some genetic predispositions has left me thin-skinned. I tend to be hyper-aware of the environment around me and the actions of people toward me. This is almost certainly a lingering response pattern to how I grew up. I'm still looking to anticipate how the people around me are going to behave so that I can alter my actions such that I will endure the least possible emotional pain.
Fortunately for me, my husband is a calm, placid, emotionally stable person who extremely rarely has any sort of negative response to anything I do or say. I can still read him like a book from his tone of voice or small changes in body language, but what I tend to read are things like 'he's about to ask me if I'd mind making coffee' or 'he's tired or out of sorts' right now, but hasn't even realized it himself yet. Those who wonder why I get effusive about how wonderful my husband is may understand a bit better now. He's emotionally a warm, comforting blanket to someone who grew up being emotionally (though fortunately not physically) beaten up.
The main problem for me with being so thin-skinned and overly attentive to how I'm regarded is that I live in Tokyo and I'm not Japanese. Living in an environment which is over-stimulating at best and around people who are constantly reacting to you because you are different can be very hard. Part of the process I continue to go through in Japan is to build a psychological wall between myself and people who I encounter. Every time I leave the apartment, I have to consciously decide to try hard not to pay attention to them and how they are reacting to me. This wall is necessary not only to protect myself, but to stop me from building up anger toward them for stolen glances, gawking, pointing, and commenting rudely in Japanese about the gaijin while laboring under the incorrect assumption that I don't know what they're saying or doing.
It took me a long time before I even decided to put this wall up. While I knew I was sensitive, my initial response to people who behave in ways that cause me pain was to be angry at them and react with angry looks or by saying or doing something to try and get them to stop. Essentially, I was trying to "fight back", but the truth is that you can't control other people in this way and it's completely energy-draining to even try in a city as big as Tokyo and when you stick out like a sore thumb in a culture which has serious issues with anyone who is obviously different. It was exhausting and ineffective.
One of the things that I realized some time ago was that this need to put up a wall between me and the Japanese around me was fueling my lack of desire to learn to speak or read Japanese better. Not understanding completely actually made my life easier because it shut me off from pain. It's much easier to build a wall when the voices around you are just noise and not actual communication. It also gave me an excuse to put a buffer between myself and any potential cross-cultural issues because someone else always did the communicating for me. When I worked in a Japanese office, my Australian boss, who spoke Japanese quite well (despite his protestations to the contrary at times), was my protection from all sorts of problems. At home, my husband did the talking when it was necessary. I used both of them as protection from possible pain and stress, and it has worked really well from that angle.
For years, I've successfully lived in a bit of a cocoon to keep my paper thin skin protected to some extent from the pain I might suffer from those around me. While it might seem that a person in my shoes might come to regret this insulation, isolation, and willful effort not to fully engage in the environment around her, I don't regret it one bit. It's what I needed to survive, and I don't know what sort of emotional state I'd be in if I hadn't had my various "buffers". The difference between people like me and people who have a thicker skin is that I am living in the equivalent of a cultural downpour with painful hailstones bashing into me and they are experiencing a light sprinkling of rain. They didn't ask for, earn, or build their ability to not experience everything with the volume turned up to 10 anymore than I asked to be the way I am. That's just the way it is, and they can't know what it's like until they have lived a few decades in my shoes.
The good thing about realizing why you live your life the way you do is that it gives you the ability to choose another path of coping. About a year ago, I started to dabble in Japanese study again because I know at least some of the reasons why I tried to shun improvement for so long. There are other reasons, and there are even some pretty good excuses (like I actually rarely need to speak it, oddly enough), but the bottom line is that I was setting the terms for how I dealt with life in Japan so that I could have a filter against pain. I'm changing the type of filter I use, and hoping that I end up all the better for it.